Report: Army doctors assessing fitness sometimes in conflict

The probe was ordered after USA TODAY reported last March that soldiers at the installation were forced to deploy despite serious medical problems.

The Fort Wainwright case highlights a broader concern about sending soldiers unfit for duty into battle as eight years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have taken a toll on troops. Army brigade commanders this year are reporting that 16% of their soldiers are non-deployable, many of those because of health problems, according to Army figures.

The Fort Wainwright investigation found "professional tension" between physicians at the fort who evaluate soldier fitness and doctors with the brigade that went to Iraq, the new report said.

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The two groups may see their roles differently, said Col. Gary Wheeler, the report's investigator.

An Army doctor whose job is to assess soldier fitness is a "faithful advocate from a patient perspective," while brigade physicians have a "keen interest in using a soldier to the full extent that is possible, from a medical perspective," Wheeler said.

Brigade leaders can ask their commanders for more soldiers, but some may be reluctant to do so, according to Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the Army's vice chief of staff. "You're always concerned when anything has to come to this headquarters," he said. "I tell them, 'Hey, you don't have to worry about that. You just have to worry about taking care of your soldiers.' "

The Stryker brigade based at Wainwright reported manpower shortages to higher command, said an Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly. Still, in the weeks after the brigade went to Iraq, 23 soldiers were pulled out of Wainwright and sent to join the Stryker unit "to maintain (the brigade's) personnel strength," an Army spokesman said last year. They were cleared as fit for war, said the spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Allen.

Soldiers left at home because of medical issues were ordered by the brigade to "be deployed regardless of medical conditions," Wheeler was told by soldiers, the Fort Wainwright ombudsman and Army civilian doctors, whose job is to assess soldier fitness.

The names of the physicians and soldiers interviewed for the report were withheld by the military.

The investigation was authorized by Maj. Gen. Patricia Horoho, then-head of the Army's Western Regional Medical Command.

The investigation found four soldiers with health problems who should not have deployed, as well as errors in fitness review procedures and a lack of knowledge about policies, Horoho said.

She said they're fixing the problems.

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